As we’ve mentioned elsewhere (see "Calling Card"), Hass is capable of writing really great poems that sound like prose. This one sounds like a regular person chatting with us as if he were an old friend. If you weren’t looking at the poem, you might think it was prose.
Listen to this line-break: "That the clown- / faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk" (lines 4-5). Because the word "clown-faced" is broken over the line, we’re tempted to put a pause right in the middle: Clown-(pause) faced. But, that wouldn’t sound right. You have to just barrel right through the line-break without a pause – this is known as an "enjambment." Hass creates a unique sense of rhythm in other ways as well, like the frequent use of commas.
In the first part of the poem, the speaker pokes fun at the hair-splitting of the "new thinkers" who argue that words don’t refer to things in the world. The poem sounds like a lawyer trying to put together an argument, but it’s a silly argument. The speaker uses legalistic phrases like "in this" and "for example" (lines 2, 3) to make this point.
Then, he starts to put words in italics. What’s that about? In terms of sound, it has about the same effect as using the "quotation marks" gesture with your hands. The italics call attention to the word as a word, and not just as a reference to something else, be it a fruit like "blackberry" or an abstract concept like "justice."
When you read these words on the page, because they’re in italics, you might find yourself saying them just a tad slower and really paying attention to how they sound. "Blackberry," in particular, is both fun and tricky to say, with all those consonants clustered together in the middle of the word. No wonder Hass uses it three times in a row at the end, as if it were a tongue twister.
"Meditation at Lagunitas" is a pastoral poem, which means it’s about nature, but Hass treats words like part of the scenery, to be admired and wondered over. The sweetness of the word "blackberry" is almost as good as the sweetness of the thing itself. Almost, we think, but not quite.
"Meditation" could make you think of religion. Hass is really interested in Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, so that’s part of what he’s up to. But, "meditation" has another meaning, which is a kind of philosophical discussion where you allow yourself to think hard and long about some idea. One of the most famous Western philosophical texts of all time is called "Meditations on First Philosophy," written by the Frenchman Rene Descartes.
Even though Hass doesn’t consider himself a philosopher, the poem discusses heavy philosophical subjects, like the relationship between language and truth and the nature of reality. It’s probably best to think of the title as a poetic response to philosophy, one which incorporates a kind of Eastern "meditation" as well.
"Lagunitas" is a beautiful, rural town in Northern California, where Hass lived for much of his life. It’s a great place to go hiking: lakes, forests, and green grass all around. And, yes, it’s the kind of place where you might see blackberries growing in the wild. We can imagine that the poet is writing (or, at least, composing in his head) these lines as he walks around looking at the natural scenery. So, when he talks about "that black birch" in line 6, think of him looking at an actual tree somewhere near Lagunitas. Like the woodpecker, the tree, and the blackberries, Lagunitas is a very specific and particular thing, and not just a "general idea" (line 4).
You might not even realize that the poem is "set" in a place called Lagunitas if not for the title. For a pastoral poem, there’s not that much nature imagery from the place that he praises. After the image of the woodpecker pecking away at a black birch, the poem shifts away from the present moment at Lagunitas, and heads into the past. But, Hass wants to argue that the past is a big part of the present.
If you put two mirrors across from one another and look into one of them, you’ll see the same image reflected over and over again from further and further away. The reflections seem to go on into infinity. "Meditation" is like one of those images, reflecting the present moment, but going further and further into the past to discover the source of its mystery. First, we get the immediate past – the night before – when the speaker talks with his friend. Then, he remembers a woman whom he makes love to, which in turn reminds him of fishing on a riverbank as a child. All of these images are connected by the speaker’s memory.
Even as he looks at the woodpecker and thinks about philosophy, his mind already races back into the past with these associations. We always see the world filtered through our experience. So, the setting of this poem is kind of a mind-bender. It’s like we’re seeing five things at once in different distances from the present. If the speaker didn’t shift away from these images at the very end of the poem, you get the sense that he can provide even more connections with the past. That’s why he calls the distances "endless," as if they really do go into infinity. And, if you haven’t seen that trick with two mirrors, check it out: it’s a total trip.
At the beginning of the poem, the speaker wants us to think that he’s pretentious. He starts talking about "new thinking" and "old thinking," like some fashion expert talking about last year’s style versus this year’s style. Then, he goes into a philosophical discussion about particular things and general ideas, without giving us any background about Plato and the ancient Greeks. (We can hear the snooty philosopher now: "You mean you didn’t know it was a reference to Plato? Humph!")
But, we get the sense that there might be more to this story when he starts sprinkling the poem with beautiful images of woodpeckers and blackberry brambles. Eventually, we get the picture: the speaker actually isn’t a pretentious guy who thinks that words don’t mean anything. In fact, he disagrees with those kinds of people. But, he’s also obviously well read and knows his stuff. He’s the kind of guy who can get away with using words like "querulous" and "numinous" without seeming like he just tries to sound smart.
In the middle of the poem (and in the middle of a line), he switches out of the pretentious act and starts telling us all this really personal stuff about his love life and childhood. One minute he’s talking about ideas and the next minute he’s like, "So, I was making love to this woman...." And we’re like, "Whoa! Where does this come from!?" This part of the poem feels like the kind of crazy late-night conversation you might have with a friend who is really honest. In a strange way, the abrupt transition from philosophy to sex and back again makes perfect sense, in the way that even the wildest late-night conversations always seem to – at least, at the time.
Although the references to Plato and philosophy require a little extra background, the poem isn’t really about dense philosophy. It’s about how dense philosophy fails to capture important parts of human experience. At heart, the poem celebrates a sensual delight in words, love, and nature. Who can argue with that? And, Hass’s visual and conversational style makes things even easier on the reader.
Do you notice how the Robert Hass poem "Meditation at Lagunitas" sounds a lot like a normal guy talking, except his sentences are broken up in verse? The sentences just start and end right in the middle of a line. It’s pretty typical for Hass,who has a very informal style. He’s also known for writing prose poems, which don’t even have line breaks. You can read about it here.
A poem is considered when it celebrates natural beauty. It can take almost any form, and this one is in free verse, which means that it has no regular rhyme or meter. There are just 31 lines of poetry. The poem is a bit unusual for a pastoral, because it begins by talking about serious philosophical ideas. A lot of older pastorals are filled with flowery language about shepherds, country maidens, and babbling brooks. But, this one feels sleek and modern, with only a few touches of nature imagery scattered throughout. For example, once the poet starts sneaking in references to "clown-faced" woodpeckers and black birches, we get clued in to the fact that the poem is more about the mysterious beauty of the landscape at Lagunitas than it is about the Platonic world of Ideas.
Although it has no regular form, a couple of things jump out in this poem. First, a lot of its sentences end in the middle of a line, rather than at the end. This means there is a lot of enjambment – which is when a sentence or phrase carries over a line break. Hass sometimes uses these enjambed line breaks to make little jokes, like this one: "some tragic falling off from a first world / of undivided light." The sentence carries on until – oops! – it "falls off" the line. How tragic.
Second, the poem looks different than it sounds. What does that mean? Well, the lines all have roughly the same length on the page, so we might expect the poem to sound very neat and even – like one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, perhaps. But, instead, it just sounds like a normal person talking. This, again, is because of how the sentences are broken up irregularly through the lines. Hass doesn’t want his poetry to sound like Poetry – he wants it to sound like everyday, rambling English. Try reading the poem aloud, and see if you agree.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
Plato divides the universe into the physical world of things, and the spiritual or intellectual world of ideas. He used metaphors of shining light and the sun to talk about this higher world. Hass playfully mocks Plato’s metaphors in the beginning of the poem. Plato also feels that words represent the perfect idea of a thing, but Hass focuses on the sounds of words like "blackberry." Words don’t just represent things in the world, the poem seems to say, words actually are things.
"Pastoral" poems frequently depict cliché images of nature: fuzzy lambs, lush grass, cascading waterfalls, thatched-roof houses, and beautiful maidens. But, the images in this poem are very specific and realistic, like the "dead sculpted trunk" of the tree at Lagunitas. For the speaker, nature is the world of the particular, the mind is where ideas reside, and language is capable of bringing the two together. He treats words as natural events, and compares things in nature to words.
Language isn’t just some flighty, abstract idea in this poem. It’s as real as a juicy blackberry or a "clown-faced woodpecker." For the Platonic philosophers, language is the means to access the higher world of ideas, but, for Hass, language is the means to access both nature and ideas. Notice how many words are put in italics throughout the poem. These italicized words are more than just words – they are symbols of how language works through both meaning and sound.
We know little about the woman, except for brief snippets of information about her small shoulders, her dreams, and her family history. More important, at least for the speaker, is how she brings to mind happy memories from his childhood, which is now behind him. Nonetheless, the imagery surrounding the woman is the emotional heart of the poem, and it leads the poet to the beautiful final lines.
No doubt about it, there’s sex in this poem. If this were a movie, right around line 16 the film would cut to a softly lit room. We catch a glimpse a man and a woman with "soft shoulders." And then, just when things are heating up, cut to a riverbank and a bunch of kids fishing.